Farming comes full circle

I grew up on a farm; well more of a smallholding really, in the county of Kent, in southern England. My father had moved there after leaving the army at the end of the Second World War, and had borrowed some money to buy a small bakery and teashop in Canterbury. The teashop was one of the few buildings that were left standing in the city after Hitler had tried to destroy British morale by bombing Canterbury Cathedral, the home of Britain’s Anglican religion. His bombs missed the cathedral, but destroyed pretty much everything else in the city.

My father expanded the teashop, buying some old army buildings to open a restaurant and an outside catering business. However food was in short supply and his only solution was to grow his own. He borrowed money from the bank to buy some land on the outskirts of the city. He started farming it, and eventually built on it the family home where I grew up.

At the beginning, the farm was geared exclusively to produce fruit and vegetables for the restaurant. He planted fruit trees on some of the land; the rest of the farm was given over to potatoes and other root crops like turnips, parsnips and swedes, as well as cabbages, beans, brussel sprouts – all of which made up the standard British diet at that time. (It was only later that he branched out into strawberries, and even later into asparagus.)

In addition to growing fruit and vegetables, he also kept some chickens to produce the eggs for the restaurant, and pigs to eat the waste food from the bakery and the restaurant. The chickens and the pigs also produced the manure that served as natural fertiliser for growing the vegetables. It really was a circular, sustainable agricultural operation that grew what we would now call “organic” food—all with zero waste!

The farm also provided me with a very happy childhood where I learned how to drive a tractor at eight and how to plough a field at ten. I regularly helped out on the farm after school, and during the long school vacations.

As Britain slowly recovered from the war, food production picked up and prices fell. It began to make more sense for my father to buy the food he needed for his catering business, rather than to grow it himself. But he still wanted the pigs to consume the waste food from the restaurant and the unsold bread from the bakery. He abandoned vegetables (except for an acre or so to supply our family), and planted barley as feed for the pigs. He also bought more pigs, started a breeding programme, and within a few years had a small industrial farm, raising and breeding pigs.

Despite his hard work the operation was never a success.

One problem was what to do with all the effluent from the pigs. It was something that my father never found an effective solution to, but which—because of the smell—made us very unpopular with our neighbours in what had slowly become a residential area.

Another problem was the difficulty in keeping the pigs healthy; they were kept in such close confinement that they were constantly ill—and needed a constant supply of antibiotics to keep them free of disease. The veterinary bills soaked up the meagre profits that the operation was making.

The biggest problem, however, was one of scale. The farm was simply too small to compete with other bigger units both in the UK and continental Europe. At the time, UK pork prices were low with cheaper imports coming in from Holland’s bigger and more efficient pig farms.

My father tried to tackle the health problem by giving up barley production, and using the land to let the pigs roam freely in the open air. The pigs were healthier (and arguably happier), and the vet bills went down. On the negative side, the pigs gained weight more slowly. In addition, my father had to now buy in all the barley and the grain that he needed to feed the pigs. The economics of the operation just didn’t work.

My father died at the age of 102 and the family gave up farming, selling the land to the local hockey club. It was just part of the UK’s move from farming (and industry) to services.

However I am sure that if my father were alive today he would still be farming, and would have taken his small farm full circle, back to producing organic food with zero waste, and selling his produce at the local markets. Whether he would be able to make a living out of it, however, would be another question.

This is an extract from my upcoming book on the agricultural merchandising business.

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